Winter is upon us, and food supplies for wild animals and birds are running low. Providing food for birds in the garden is not only a great way to help them survive the winter, it also attracts a variety of species to the garden and provides an opportunity to observe them and their feeding habits. You do need to be careful about what food you put out and where you site bird tables and feeders, but it’s no more complicated than applying simple common sense. For example, if you have cats, don’t put bird feeders where the cats are likely to be able to catch unsuspecting birds: position hanging feeders at the end of long tree branches and well away from places where the cats can hide under cover ready to leap out. You could also wrap a length of barbed wire loosely around the branch or, if you have a bird table, around the top of the post.
There’s a huge variety of food that can be used to feed wild birds, and putting out a good mixture of different kinds will encourage a wide range of species into the garden. Sunflower seeds, pinhead oatmeal, raisins, mealworms, raw suet, bacon rind, melon seeds, stale cake and bread (moistened with a little water if it’s very dry ) are all good sources of food. Peanuts (not salted ones ) are good, too, but because birds can choke on whole nuts they are best provided in a small wire mesh feeder: this means the bird has to peck away at the nuts rather than grabbing them whole. A fresh coconut, halved across its equator and with a hole drilled in each end, can be hung up in the garden, but avoid desiccated coconut: it swells up in the bird’s stomach, which can be dangerous. You can also buy bags of mixed bird feed from garden centres.
It’s also a good idea to provide water, which birds use not only to drink but also to bathe in. While there should be more than enough water around in birds’ natural habitats at the moment, if we get freezing weather much of this water becomes unavailable to them, so a bird bath or shallow dish of water will be welcome. If the water in a bird bath freezes, remember to break the ice or pour in some hot water to melt it.
There are plenty of bird feeders available in the shops, but you can also make your own from a clean empty one- or two-litre plastic drinks bottle (the square ones are easiest to work with, but a round one would be fine ), a couple of short lengths of cane or sticks to use as perches, some string and a handful of gravel. First make four holes about an inch and a half in diameter spaced evenly round the bottle, about four inches from the bottom. Make sure there are no sharp or jagged edges. Then make a smaller hole under each of these holes, just wide enough to push the perches through. The perches need to stick out about four inches from each side of the bottle. Pour some gravel into the bottle, enough to come up to just below the level of the bigger holes – this will provide some stability and prevent the bottle swinging about in the wind. Then make a small hole in the bottle top (you may need a hand drill for this ), push the string through and make a knot on the inside large enough to stop the string slipping through. Finally, fill the bottle with your chosen bird food, screw the top on and use the string to hang the feeder from a branch.